LaffCon 5 was held on June 12, 2021, in an online format that departed from the usual meetup in New Jersey. Although the Zoom conference was a temporary health and safety precaution, the web experience gave fans from California, the UK, and elsewhere a chance to attend. Organizers hope to return to in-person meetings in the future while continuing to offer an online alternative. About 50 were logged in for the morning opener and 121 registered to cycle through a day of talks and audience discussion (when not otherwise diverted by the tending of children and petting of neglected cats).
John Ellison launched with his thoughts on “Lafferty, addiction, and Ignatian spirituality.” He quoted Damon Knight, who said of Lafferty, “He turned to writing… as a substitute for serious drinking. The tavernkeepers weep while we rejoice.” Space Chantey offers a look into the addictive mindset, when a band of drunken sailors are kicked awake by their captain. Some fight back, others roll over, still more are tired of resisting wakeup and yet too exhausted to comply. Overall, the talk was a rumination on Lafferty’s somewhat unique brand of spirituality and how he managed to make addiction a part of his life, if not the reason to fight back when booted off the floor of the pub.
Daniel Otto Jack Petersen recently completed a University of Glasgow doctoral thesis titled “You Are the Old Entrapped Dreams of the Coyote’s Brains Oozing Liquid Through the Broken Eye Socket’: Ecomonstrous poetics and weird bioregionalism in the fiction of R.A. Lafferty (with a comparative reading of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian)”. It’s a fairly self-explanatory title, but for those who require elaboration: Ray joined such diverse experiences as his military service in the South Pacific with the folk patter of Tulsa. This was the son of a white homesteader among many who settled in Oklahoma—a territory previously demarcated for forcibly resettled Native Americans. These difficult minglings produced an author of “unsettler fiction.”
During the lunch hour, the audience was encouraged to join a direct video conference to meet for the first time or to catch up from years past.
Next up was Gregorio Montejo on the subject of Space Chantey. The events of the novel come into focus as a farcical satire of The Odyssey by way of James Joyce. Chantey’s planet-hopping sailors set sail to answer a simple question: Will there be a mythology in the future, after all has become science? Gregorio retraced the battle between Odysseus’ sailors and a sorceress who turns his crew into swine, the parallel in Joyce’s Ulysses where a run-in with the madam of a Dublin brothel brings out terrifying “animal” urges in patrons, and finally Lafferty saying I’ll do you one better by pitting his shipmates against a space witch who transforms the men into apes. Is the author underlining or undermining his literary forerunners?
In a panel discussion on Space Chantey, Andrew Ferguson and Kevin Cheek were joined again by Petersen and Montejo to remember the way traveling bards once performed Homer’s poems from memory. Each recitation was tailored to the mood of the crowd in a free-flowing format, not unlike Chantey which went through multiple drafts, one too short to sell, another drawn out to give the reading audience the fully fleshed, yet episodic version they wanted. The Q&A brought up questions on the treatment of women in the story. Lafferty’s characters are often roughly treated, but were they unfairly singled out, this time?
Bryan Cholfin and Greg Ketter had first-hand experience in publishing Lafferty. They shared what it was like to work with a reserved speaker who was certainly not the sort to chat by phone, but a positive loudmouth on the page.
The final spectacle of the day concerned the sober topic of unseriousness. Senior WIRED editor Jason Kehe showed up in his most respectable tasseled novelty hat to discuss his recent article: Who is Lafferty? And Is He the Best Sci-Fi Writer Ever? The piece is credited with introducing new readers to this unserious definitely-not-a-cult. Kehe is something of an expert on new acquaintances, converted after an encounter with the newest Best Of collection. His breathless reading from the text reminded the audience that yes, these are books about dead Greek poets and Irish ne’er-do-wells cribbing Chaucer, but they’re also rollicking fun. Silly, ludicrous, fun, with maybe a hint of Homer.